Sunday, June 3, 2012

Springtime is Peonytime

Peonies are some of the most outrageous flowers in the garden.

This is a double lactiflora cultivar called
Bowl of Cream in my garden on 6/2/2012

If you have one or twenty peonies in your garden you understand how dominating their presence can be, from both a visual and olfactory perspective.  With new plants coming on the market every year, many of the old-fashioned favorite peonies can get pushed to the back.  First off, there are three major species of Peony:  Herbaceous, Tree and Intersectional.  Herbaceous Peonies are the ones we see most often with big green leaves and the flowers above.  They die back to the ground every year.  Tree Peonies keep a shrub-like structure and the leaves fall off at the end of the season.  Intersectionals are a cross and look like the herbaceous plants with the tree flowers.

The most commonly used are the herbaceous, and there are four major types classified specifically on the form of the flower.  They are Single, Double, Japanese and Anemone.  The Anemone is really a different version of the Japanese.

The Single Form - Simple petals open to reveal the colored anthers and stamens inside.

The Double Form - More petals open to reveal a center where the stamens have evolved to look like more petals.  Very complicated botanical stuff that isn't worth covering.  The results are stunning, big and often the most fragrant of all peonies.

The Japanese Form - More like the single form with slightly evolved stamens to give it a fuller look, the stamens will often take on some of the petal color.

The Anemone Form - A more developed form of the Japanese but still distinctly different from the Double in that the stamens still will have some yellow and less developed 'petals'.

I had the pleasure of managing the gardens on a private estate in Brookline where we had a 100' long, 5' wide bed dedicated just to Peonies.  The display lasted for two months with different flowering times and an incredible range of colors and forms.  If you have a little space somewhere in the garden, this is the plant to grow in large groupings.  Not only will you have beautiful cut flowers all Spring, but your garden will be filled with outrageous color and fragrance.  After flowering, the plants can be trimmed back a little and they form nice green plants for the remainder of the season.

Peonies are simple to grow with a few key things to remember.  They need a lot of sun to flower and stay free of mildew on the leaves.  They need good soil that is amended with compost annually, and they are heavy feeders requiring a good balanced fertilizer.  

Also, they hate to be moved.  If you want to divide or move the plants,  do it only in the fall, and realize that it may take several years for them to reestablish and start flowering.  It can take 3-5 years for newly divided plants to reach their flowering potential.

Before you purchase, do a little research to find the plants you really like for color, form and fragrance.  The above images are from Hidden Springs Flower Farm a bare-root supplier in Minnesota.


  1. thanks reed-peonies are one of my very favorite flowers and there are so many beautiful varieties around our neighborhood yet i haven't one in my garden! perhaps your blog on them will give me the confidence to try them:)

  2. In Virginia, we use Paeonias all the time. I agree....GREAT plant that adds color to the garden in the late Spring (early May here) and good green foliage throughout the remainder of the Summer. Did you know that there is even a cultivar which is a pale yellow? I don't have it yet, but I have seen it in some local gardens and it is beautiful. Reed, good luck with your blog; I look forward to future posts!

    1. Dan you are quite right. The leading hybridizer of 'yellows' is Donald Smith, here in Massachusetts ( Most of the good yellows are hybrids or intersectional peonies that bring the yellow from the Tree Peony species. I had a chance to do a presentation with him about five years ago.

      Also, check out Hidden Springs Flower Farm ( ) for bare root peonies. They have a nice selection of yellow. You can buy some and grow them out for a few years on the nursery.


  3. Enjoyed reading your post and appreciate your integrity for crediting where you found the images. They illustrate your post very well. All the best for a great garden in 2014. Harvey Buchite Owner Hidden Springs Flower Farm